Vera White, associate for the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, got into church planting by chance.
In 1999, she was working at Pittsburgh Presbytery, which had gone 40 years without a new church development and had closed 60 churches in the same period. At a presbytery meeting, a pastor suggested that Pittsburgh start new churches and the presbytery agreed. As a new employee, White was tasked with the job and ended up becoming the presbytery’s director of New Church Development, Stewardship and the Committee on Ministry.
“For me that’s always been proof — as if I ever needed it — that the Holy Spirit exists,” she said.
Although White didn’t have much experience with starting new churches and has never been a member of a new church development herself, she has always enjoyed starting new things and loves the idea of a challenge. Her 13 years in Pittsburgh were largely spent helping to create good systems and conditions that gave people the freedom to try new things.
“It’s really touched me personally,” she said. “It’s been a really good fit for my own energy and interests.”
Since 1999, Pittsburgh has become known as a breeding ground for new worshiping communities, with a healthy community of church planters and related courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary feeding the buzz.
In her new role with 1001, White hopes to apply the lessons learned in Pittsburgh across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Will those lessons have wider application?
“That is one of the most vital questions for me of this new job,” White said.
Church planting depends on context: the old model of building new churches and expecting members to appear wouldn’t work in Pittsburgh, which was experiencing a population decline and already had a plethora of empty church buildings, White said. Instead, the presbytery began to see church planting as missionary work.
“It’s a different understanding of who God is and what God’s purposes are,” White said. “When we took buildings off the table … it really changed the whole nature of how we began thinking about the church”
Of course, the church in Pittsburgh will look different than the church in rural Iowa, which will look different than the church in Portland, Ore. Each community is different, and the church is called to be part of the community it finds itself in.
“How we imagine church and how we do church really depends on who it is we’re trying to reach,” White said.
Church planting is about really embedding oneself in a community. Jeremiah 29 tells the exiles in Babylon to settle down, build houses and get married.
“That’s really what we’re called to do right now,” White said. “I think the job of a new worshiping community is to figure out what the Holy Spirit is up to and how to be a part of that.”
Presbyteries are most effective when they create inviting conditions for new worshiping communities rather than initiating programs, White said. Worshiping communities need to be part of community programs already in place. Presbyteries need to look for sparks in communities and “figure out how to fan those sparks into flames.”
Pittsburgh Presbytery designated a commission with funding and administrative abilities that was able to give permission to new worshiping communities and take whatever “hits” might come along the way.
It’s important to let people try new things, even when they have failed before. But church planters must also be held accountable — they need sound Christology, a solid strategy, a sustainable budget, leadership development and stewardship, among other things.
The 1001 movement is not a top-down program from the Presbyterian Mission Agency, but it does expect presbyteries to hold new worshiping communities accountable.
“Our yes is only meaningful when we’re also able to say no,” White said.
Presbyteries ultimately decide on the “ownership” of a new worshiping community and White envisions them providing support in new ways. She would like each presbytery to have ambassadors who can encourage new worshiping communities in the area — 400 people have already volunteered. White also would like presbyteries to have access to learning centers that provide mutual support and a space for training, retreats, speakers and prayer.
White also has some advice for church planters.
Top at the list is commitment to deep spiritual practices that are “life-giving and lifelong.”
“Without a deep relationship with God, there’s no way for them to be successful,” she said.
She also encourages church planters to register their community on the 1001 site, where they can find information on support, coaching, conferences and grants.
“If we know they’re out there, we would love to help them,” she said.
White also recommends that church planters be bivocational, allowing them the flexibility to follow God without being dependant on a pastor’s salary. Joining an accountability group and completing a church planter assessment are other tips.
But underlying budgets, strategies and workshops is prayer, on which White and her colleagues in Pittsburgh relied.
“That was the most important thing we could do,” she said. “Prayer is recognition that this is God’s work. It’s not the work of well-meaning Presbyterians or young pastors with guitars.”